Before Clearview Became a Police Tool, It Was a Secret Plaything of the Rich
One Tuesday night in October 2018, John Catsimatidis, the billionaire owner of the Gristedes grocery store chain, was having dinner at Cipriani, an upscale Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, when his daughter, Andrea, walked in. She was on a date with a man Mr. Catsimatidis didn’t recognize. After the couple sat down at another table, Mr. Catsimatidis asked a waiter to go over and take a photo.
Mr. Catsimatidis then uploaded the picture to a facial recognition app, Clearview AI, on his phone. The start-up behind the app has a database of billions of photos, scraped from sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Within seconds, Mr. Catsimatidis was viewing a collection of photos of the mystery man, along with the web addresses where they appeared: His daughter’s date was a venture capitalist from San Francisco.
“I wanted to make sure he wasn’t a charlatan,” said Mr. Catsimatidis, who then texted the man’s bio to his daughter.
Ms. Catsimatidis said she and her date had no idea how her father had identified him so quickly. “I expect my dad to be able to do crazy things. He’s very technologically savvy,” Ms. Catsimatidis said. “My date was very surprised.”
Clearview was unknown to the general public until this January, when The New York Times reported that the secretive start-up had developed a breakthrough facial recognition system that was in use by hundreds of law enforcement agencies. The company quickly faced a backlash on multiple fronts. Facebook, Google and other tech giants sent cease-and-desist letters. Lawsuits were filed in Illinois and Virginia, and the attorney general of New Jersey issued a moratorium against the app in that state.
In response to the criticism, Clearview published a “code of conduct,” emphasizing in a blog post that its technology was “available only for law enforcement agencies and select security professionals to use as an investigative tool.”
The post added: “We recognize that powerful tools always have the potential to be abused, regardless of who is using them, and we take the threat very seriously. Accordingly, the Clearview app has built-in safeguards to ensure these trained professionals only use it for its intended purpose: to help identify the perpetrators and victims of crimes.”
The Times, however, has identified multiple individuals with active access to Clearview’s technology who are not law enforcement officials. And for more than a year before the company became the subject of public scrutiny, the app had been freely used in the wild by the company’s investors, clients and friends.
Those with Clearview logins used facial recognition at parties, on dates and at business gatherings, giving demonstrations of its power for fun or using it to identify people whose names they didn’t know or couldn’t recall.
“As part of the ordinary course of due diligence, we provided trial accounts to potential and current investors, and other strategic partners, so they could test the technology,” said Hoan Ton-That, the company’s co-founder.
Mr. Catsimatidis first heard about Clearview from his friend Richard Schwartz, another founder of the company, who served as an aide to Rudolph W. Giuliani when Mr. Giuliani was mayor of New York. Last summer, Mr. Catsimatidis ran a trial project with Clearview at an East Side Gristedes market. The company used the system to identify known “shoplifters or people who had held up other stores,” Mr. Catsimatidis said.
“People were stealing our Häagen-Dazs. It was a big problem,” he said. He described Clearview as a “good system” that helped security personnel identify problem shoppers.
BuzzFeed News has reported that two other entities, a labor union and a real estate firm, also ran trials with a surveillance system developed by Clearview to flag individuals they deemed risky. The publication also reported that Clearview’s software has been used by Best Buy, Macy’s, Kohl’s, the National Basketball Association and numerous other organizations.
When Clearview first developed its facial recognition service in 2017, Mr. Ton-That and Mr. Schwartz were uncertain about who might pay for it, and they courted a range of clients including real estate firms, banks and retailers. At the same time, Clearview was seeking outside investment. Many of the individuals the company approached got personal logins to the app.
Clearview received a seed investment round of about $1 million in July 2018. Its backers included the billionaire investor Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist David Scalzo and Hal Lambert, an investor in Texas who runs an exchange-traded fund with the ticker symbol “MAGA,” which tracks companies that align with Republican politics.
“I have the app,” Mr. Lambert said in an interview. “I’ve used it to talk about what we’re doing in the space. I show it to friends of mine, potential investors.
“They thought it was amazing,” he added. “They say, ‘How do I get that?’ And I say, ‘You can’t.’”
Mr. Scalzo, the founder of the investment firm Kirenaga Partners, said in an interview that his school-aged daughters enjoyed playing with the app.
“They like to use it on themselves and their friends to see who they look like in the world,” he said. “It’s kind of fun for people.”
A spokesman for Mr. Thiel did not respond to a request for comment.
When Clearview was seeking its Series A round of funding, which was completed in 2019, the start-up contacted a number of venture capital firms, including Sequoia Capital and Khosla Ventures. Access to the app was offered as a perk, according to people familiar with the company’s fund-raising attempts.
Doug Leone, a billionaire partner at Sequoia, was given a login, according to three people with knowledge of Clearview’s operations. But his account was revoked when Sequoia declined to invest. A spokeswoman for Sequoia declined to comment.
In September, Ashton Kutcher, the actor turned venture capitalist, described an app much like Clearview during a YouTube series called “Hot Ones,” in which guests are interviewed while eating spicy chicken wings.
“I have an app in my phone in my pocket right now. It’s like a beta app,” Mr. Kutcher said. “It’s a facial recognition app. I can hold it up to anybody’s face here and, like, find exactly who you are, what internet accounts you’re on, what they look like. It’s terrifying.”
Mr. Kutcher did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Ton-That contends that Clearview is doing nothing wrong — that his app simply replicates what other search engines do. Instead of allowing internet users to search for people’s public images by name, as one can do on Google, he said, Clearview allows them to do the search by uploading a face.
For now, it’s a power that Clearview controls and can give out as it pleases.
In October, Clearview asked Nicholas Cassimatis, an expert on artificial intelligence, to help conduct an internal accuracy test. He did the work for free, he said, because he knew Mr. Ton-That socially. The test consisted of submitting the faces of 834 federal and state legislators. Clearview’s algorithms accurately identified every one of the politicians.
After the test was complete, Mr. Cassimatis was allowed to keep Clearview’s app on his phone. He said he had since run dozens of searches.
“I tested it in surprising places: smoky bars, dark places. And it worked every time,” Mr. Cassimatis said. “It’s road testing. I do it as a hobby. I ask people for permission. It’s like a parlor trick. People like it.”